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Saturday, 4 July 2020

REVIEW: I may Destroy you is tackling subjects TV has never dared to.

In a culture where new TV is so often reviewed in comparison to popular shows of the past, it seems cheap to do the same with BBC One and HBO’s new comedy-drama, I May Destroy You. Its supposed likeness to Fleabag is perhaps lazy, and the similarity between creator Michaela Coel and Phoebe Waller-Bridge begins and ends with the fact that they are two female visionaries whose career trajectories have paralleled. Granted, both Chewing Gum and Fleabag gained attention from their protagonist breaking the fourth wall and interacting with the viewer. Whilst Coel makes sure that her latest venture remains insular, with I May Destroy You she has created a world that is as engaging, involving and compelling as anything I’ve ever seen on TV.

In I May Destroy You, Coel plays the central character Arabella, a young writer who has recently found fame amongst millennials with her debut novel. In the opening episode, Arabella distracts herself from the looming deadline of her second book by venturing on a night out with friends, but the next morning, she is deeply shaken and is confused about her movements. As she attempts to construct a picture of the previous night, she realises that her drink was spiked and she was sexually assaulted. The series then follows Arabella as she navigates the weeks and months after the assault, as well as exploring her career and her relationships – both romantic and platonic.

What I love about Arabella is that Coel has made her a deeply flawed character; she’s vivacious and passionate yet she’s also na├»ve and chaotic. It’s never enough to make her unlikeable, but the assurance that she isn’t perfect immediately connects an audience to Arabella, and we are profoundly affected by the disorientation she experiences on her night out, despite being introduced to her character only minutes previously. The same nuanced treatment is given to Arabella’s closest friends, as a sense of moral ambiguity is attached to even the most sympathetic of characters. Terry (Weruche Opia) is a struggling actress who is fiercely loyal to Arabella, her best friend since school, but her kindness in the aftermath of the assault perhaps has a guilt-based ulterior motive. Meanwhile, Kwame (Paapa Essiedu) is silently struggling with his own exploitation after experimenting with casual sex using the app Grindr, as well as exploring the fluidity of his sexuality. Every character is multi-layered and three dimensional, creating accurate depictions of messy and complex modern-day relationships. As viewers we tend to quickly establish who the ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad guys’ are in shows – I May Destroy You lets us do this and then subverts what we thought we knew, twisting and challenging our judgment.

It’s not just the characters that are presented ambiguously; one of the key themes of I May Destroy You is consent, but it is explored in a refreshingly unique way. The first episode depicts a sexual assault which is evidently non-consensual, but as the series progresses, the show challenges the binary of consent and argues that it is not just a yes-no question. There are examples of consensual sex becoming non-consensual, “stealthing” (when a man removes the condom during sex), and deception, where someone consents to sex on different terms. In all these scenarios, consent had been given at one point, highlighting the often-ignored truth that consent is a constantly renewed agreement. Just as Arabella receives widespread support on social media after sharing her ordeal, I May Destroy You has been celebrated by critics and viewers alike for its representation of the “grey areas” of consent, with many talking for the first time about their own, similar experiences.

Consent is rarely discussed in television with such nuance, and I May Destroy You does this and more, with Coel tackling a number of taboo subjects in her writing. The sex scenes have been praised for their realism and their diversity, with particular attention being shown to a scene where Arabella deals with having sex whilst on her period. A section of dialogue I found particularly interesting is a conversation in episode 8 where Kwame discusses the use of both homophobic and racial slurs – it is a subject left alone by writers in fear of offending, but this is yet another bold and effective choice made by Michaela Coel.

The use of the internet and social media is something else I appreciate about this series. In today’s world, technology has become embedded in everything we do, and I May Destroy You captures this skilfully, without it ever feeling forced or unrealistic. The ease in which something can be shared on social media and the ability for that post to go viral is set against the danger of anonymous dating apps and the distribution of inappropriate images. The power of the internet is used as a tool within the series to either liberate or destroy, with this careful balance making the show even more relevant and important for a young, contemporary audience. This building of a believable world allows Coel to make an intricate social commentary that threads through the central plot. As well as highlighting complex hypocrisies within social groups and organisations, the series shows an appreciation of intersectionality. Arabella says that “prior to being raped, I never took much notice of being a woman. I was busy being black and poor.”, underlining the struggles that come with each of her identities. Systemic racism, elitism and misogyny tend to overlap, leading to the confusion of those who are subjected to more than one of these forms of oppression. For this conflict of interest to be explicitly confronted on television is something I found incredibly powerful.

I May Destroy You is like nothing I’ve ever seen on television before. Michaela Coel has proven herself to be a true innovator, and it is clear that she has been heavily involved in every aspect of the show. As the creator, writer, director (alongside Luther director Sam Miller) and the star, the passion Coel has for this project is showcased in every frame, in every music choice and in every word of dialogue. The rawness and authenticity that is felt throughout likely stems from the fact that Arabella’s story is based on Coel’s own experiences, when she was the victim of a sexual assault whilst writing the second series of Chewing Gum. There is so much freedom within I May Destroy You; there are tangents, monologues, loose ends and flashbacks, all of which are risks within episodic television, but the quality of the show means that you trust Coel’s superb vision and will happily go with her in whatever direction she takes the story next. It means that the show can often be an extremely difficult watch, but there is also joy, empowerment and humour woven into every moment of tragedy. The unpredictability is surely the shows’ strength: watching I May Destroy You is genuinely exciting and when I sit down to watch the next episode, I have no idea what I’m about to watch. The only thing I am sure of is that it will come from a place of truth, integrity and fearlessness.

Contributed by Erin Zammitt
I May Destroy You is now available on BBC iPlayer

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